Planning a wedding traditionally involves fraught decisions about the venue, menu and whether to invite that long-lost cousin.
But as the nation tip-toes toward the end of the pandemic, Joe Bibelhausen and Katie McKalip have added an unwelcome item to their to-do list: the touchy topic of guest vaccinations for COVID-19.
“I don’t have an issue showing someone my vaccination card if I’m going to a concert, but I don’t feel like asking people to share that to attend our wedding,” said McKalip, 31, a bank regulator in Nashville, Tennessee, who plans to wed medical industry salesman Bibelhausen, 32, in Portland, Oregon, where the couple met.
The pair has decided to tell guests, both via invitations and their wedding website, that they “strongly encourage” attendees to get vaccinated before the September event.
“We haven’t heard much blowback to that approach so far,” said Bibelhausen.
For many Americans, how or whether to inquire about and convey to others one’s vaccination status has become a fraught issue. In a nation where mask-wearing quickly was politicized, the COVID-19 vaccine has stirred similar discord.
President Joe Biden has said there will be no federal vaccination mandate or tracking system. That puts the onus on individual states, which have reacted differently. New York is pioneering a digital health certificate called the Excelsior Pass, which leverages technology but raises questions about access for the digitally disenfranchised.
In contrast, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have issued orders banning businesses and institutions from requiring proof of vaccination. This despite some businesses asking those who enter their establishments to provide proof of their vaccination status.
“Vaccine passports’ must be stopped,” tweeted former Texas Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
To date, 44% of Americans, or 146 million people, are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The United States this week marked its 600,000th death from the pandemic.
Into this often confusing breach has stepped a blend of entrepreneurialism, social media sharing and other ad hoc communication methods aimed at reassuring or warning others.
Companies have sprung up that peddle social signaling kits that include color-coded rubber wristbands, T-shirts and signage. Those vaccinated are taking to Instagram and other tech platforms to tout their status. And, in one case, school officials used a Sharpie marker to ID vaccinated prom attendees, drawing blowback from some parents.
Cartoonists have gotten into the act, as well. In her whimsical series of illustrations for a New Yorker magazine piece, artist Sharon Levy sketched out numerous farcical solutions.
These included cutting a hole in the arm of your shirt to showcase your Band-Aid-covered shot wound, wearing a bronzed syringe on a necklace and sporting the letters v-a-x-d on four manicured nails.
This hodgepodge of efforts to come to grips with our new vax-world reality is likely to mushroom given the nation’s fierce streak of individualism. That stands in contrast to approaches taken by Israel – where a fully vaccinated populace must display an electronic “Green Pass” to attend group events – and a range of European countries that are testing national vaccination certificate systems.
Rubber wristbands tell COVID-19 tale
Absent a federal approach, Ron Pollvogt is hoping his products can fill the void. His company, Houston-based The Elation Factory Co., sells $40 social distancing event kits that include 50 colored rubber wristbands with signage to help people decode the gear. A blue one, for example, means you’re vaccinated.
The orders are pouring in, he said. “I’m not planning on retiring making bands for social distancing, but right now business is good,” said Pollvogt.
Pollvogt considers himself politically conservative, but he is quick to point out that many in his community wear masks and care for each others’ welfare.
“I know people are saying, ‘This is branding, they’ll tattoo it on us next,’ but really this is all voluntary and it’s about attending an event and feeling like you’re making others around you feel comfortable, which a lot of people support,” he said.
In Chesterfield County, Virginia, the local Chamber of Commerce has been aggressive about helping local businesses stay afloat during the pandemic, holding meetings with local shop owners during all but the most serious of lockdowns.
To help attendees feel safe, chamber president Danielle Fitz-Hugh last August ordered rubber wristbands. Green meant handshakes were OK, yellow implied an elbow bump was best, and red said please stay 6 feet away.
“Not one person complained,” said Fitz-Hugh, whose county has a slight majority of Democratic voters.
Since the vaccine started to roll out, the chamber has switched over to another honor system option involving color-coded stickers on name tags.
“We changed because sometimes you couldn’t see the wristband if it got tucked under a sleeve,” she said. “In the end, this is all about people needing human interaction, and offering people a choice for ways to do what’s right for them in a nonconfrontational way.”
‘Health and politics at play’
Disputes are inevitable given the “unprecedented global quandary” the pandemic has created, said Susan Krenn, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs in Baltimore.
“We’ve never seen a phenomenon like this, which has both health and politics at play,” said Krenn, whose program focuses on strategic health communications in resource-challenged nations.
“The best advice is, within your immediate circle have these conversations so you’re aware of everyone’s status and comfort level,” she said. “But outside that, I don’t know that there’s a way to formalize this. Labeling people one way or the other can just deepen the divide.”
That’s what happened when Exeter High School in Exeter, New Hampshire, decided to hold an in-person maskless senior prom.
Administrators asked attendees for proof of vaccination. Those who had not yet gotten one or both shots had a number written on their hand that was used to track dance partners, according to school officials.
To date, there have been no cases associated with the dance. But the act of marking students caused Republican state Rep. Melissa Litchfield to comment critically on social media, which in turn drew a response from some parents concerned about their children being “branded.”
Superintendent David Ryan, who oversees Exeter High School, said in a statement that the district “takes these concerns very seriously and as a result, we will be conducting an internal audit of the processes that the school developed and used at prom.”
Rising high school senior Rachel Kabala of Detroit’s Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine said she and her peers like to spread the word of their vaccinated status on their Instagram stories. But now she is pondering the possibility of wearing a wristband that would say the same thing.
“It’s definitely challenging to let people know in the street what your situation is,” said Kabala, 16, who when the vaccine rollout started wrote an article shared across the city’s public school system that told her fellow students, “we need to step up, get vaccinated, and encourage our loved ones also to get vaccinated.”
Kabala said she might come up with a system of her own, perhaps “a pin you wear or a bag you carry, we need some system to tell each other, which is also a way of encouraging others to get the shot.”
One glance at Etsy reveals a wide array of such accouterments, mostly bracelets of various kinds that say “COVID-19 Vaccinated” and some even including the dates of both shots. There are also plenty of T-shirts to announce your position, with sayings such as “Thanks Science!” and “Moderna Alumni.”
In Denver, Dr. Tashof Bernton thought the country needed something a bit more official than home-brewed gear.
Drawing inspiration from a comment his son made early in the pandemic about how it would be helpful to know who in your midst might have antibodies to COVID-19, Bernton in December developed the ImmunaBand, a blue, hospital-looking wrist bracelet emblazoned with a QR code.
The $20 product allows the wearer to link the code to a vaccination card provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which comes in handy when trying to gain entry to concerts, sports events and any places of business that require official proof of vaccination for admission.
“To truly give someone a sense of safety, you can’t really have something that’s on the honor system, it needs to be linked to a real credential,” said Bernton, who practices internal and preventive medicine. He adds that his product “says to others, ‘I’ve been vaccinated and I’m not a threat to you.’ It’s sad to put it that way, but that’s the truth.”
Vaccine status the ‘elephant in the room’
For Portland, Oregon, wedding planner Elisabeth Kramer, the best policy is honesty.
“I tell couples that as hosts, you would do well to address the elephant in the room, which is vaccinations,” said Kramer, who said business is roaring back but concerns about how to keep a large wedding party safe has jumped to the front of the line.
“Some wonder, ‘Will it kill the vibe of my wedding to talk about COVID-19?’ Well, maybe, but then again, who out there is not thinking about this?” she said. “I have heard from guests who are freaked out still about large events.”
Adding to the confusion is a mix of rules that vary based on state and even individual venue. While event facilities seldom ask for vaccination records for all guests, often they will ask those renting the venue to sign a waiver in case someone gets sick. “But who knows how that would hold up in court,” said Kramer.
Instead, her advice to couples, including Bibelhausen and McKalip, is to communicate as much as possible with those invited to get a sense of who is vaccinated. Among those who aren’t, can’t or don’t want to be, gauge what their comfort level is if they are asked to wear a mask or socially distance at the event.
“You won’t offend people with this approach,” she said. “What will offend people is if they get COVID-19 at your wedding.”
Bibelhausen and McKalip are busy having just such conversations with the 120 or so invited friends and family to ensure a fun and healthy celebration come September.
But first, there’s the matter of two July weddings to which they have been invited. Both invitations used language encouraging vaccinations, but neither asked to provide proof.
“Some guests shared they’re vaccinated, but others are more cautious about that, so you really don’t know,” said McKalip, a touch of concern creeping into her voice. “At least I think we’ll be outside.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 vaccination rate: People want to know who got the shot